It was 31 years ago, on Monday October 19th 1987 that the world discovered a new problem. It started as an anticipated stock market crash in Hong Kong, the result of a fairly obvious bubble. But it did not stop there. Within hours, exchanges opened up in the morning already down and panic pushing them lower, all around the world.
It was eventually blamed on “program trading” or automatic sell-offs directed by computers. Circuit breakers were put in place to stop it, and that was that. But it was the first sign that equity markets had become truly global and had much less to do with global conditions than everyone thought.
The lessons from this are much deeper than program trading, but they are much harder to learn.
The nearly permanent US trade deficit is getting a lot of attention. Surely, it’s a bad thing to send so much money outside the US when it could be providing jobs to American workers, yes? The problem largely goes without saying, and is never actually discussed.
But are trade deficits really that bad? As with most things in economics, the short answer is no but the long answer is yes. Let’s discuss.
Barataria has long joked that economics is just sociology with a way of keeping score. Like most jokes, that’s an exaggeration with a kernel of truth at the heart of it. Where we should all be interested in fairly circulating wealth in a way that provides a good life for everyone and raising capital to get things done, people naturally want to know who is “winning” instead.
The stock market is the best, or worst, example of this. Where it should concentrate on raising capital for corporations, it is instead a kind of sporting match. Like any sport, it can be bet on. With the betting comes attempts to game the system which can work in the short term before it all eventually returns to the mean.
That is pretty much all that is happening right now, aside from attempts to game the overall economy with poorly considered deficits and trade wars.
. As Barataria has discussed before, business cycles are not only real but heavily define the world in social and technical development terms. These cycles are, in purely economic terms, changes in availability and attitudes towards debt.
It is more than a little chilling to think that progress naturally comes in waves because of something as mundane as debt. But a system defined by money supply which has features that are destabilizing and work against sustainability and resilience is a large part of what we might call “capitalism.” The equilibrium of markets is pushed and pulled by the availability of capital.
One important feature of Fourth Wave Industrialization has to be that these cycles will need to be broken and greater monetary stability has to be achieved for a truly open market. This is likely to mean that equity will have to be favored over debt. But what, really, is the difference?
Ten years ago, Lehman Brothers collapsed in a pile of overextended debt that could not be sustained by a weakening housing market, stock market, and many other bubbles. It would later be called the end of the “housing bubble” as a general panic ensued over the asset most commonly held by the general public.
But the issue at hand was, more generally, a debt crisis which fueled an unsustainable rise in asset prices in many areas. Banks were caught with more liabilities than assets as loans that should never have been made defaulted.
Today, banks are more wary, especially of consumers. But corporations have been racking up debt to a level that many feel is unsustainable.
History is consistent in one important way. Empires always fall, and there are three main causes for the collapse. Succession crises, corruption and debt are what eventually bring them down. And the cause of debt is always an insatiable appetite for war – either from a need to defend the borders or expand them.
In the US today, there is no concern about succession, as our Founding Fathers made sure that wasn’t an issue. Corruption is certainly an issue, but it’s nowhere near Roman levels at this time. Debt, on the other hand is mounting rapidly.
What is the cause of that debt? Despite many deflections, it’s not caused by taking care of people. Our debt can be directly traced to our appetite for war.
The trade war with China accelerates as the Trump administration’s latest tariffs have been matched. Talks have broken down, and Trump seems to think that the taxes are paid by China, not US consumers. He’s not going to back down anytime soon.
Where does it stop? If the end goal is an even trade between the two nations, it’s not actually possible to accomplish it this way – unless it drops to zero. There are systemic problems in world trade generally and China specifically which create this issue that can and must be worked out. A competent administration would do that hard work and create a world that is much more even all around.
But no, we’d all rather just bully our way to prosperity or something.